5 Things No One Can Teach You About Being Funny
I've had a decent amount of success in the field of Internet comedy. Enough that I was able to quit my day job and just do this for a living, anyway. As a result, people ask me for career advice all the time. And if you're an Internet writer like I am, you know "all the time" means "it happened once."
That doesn't matter, though, because I don't really have that much advice to give. Anyone can write for Cracked, and I just did that a lot and now I work here. There's no reason you can't do that, too.
Well, almost no reason. There are some things about being funny that no one can teach you. If you decide to pursue comedy as a career, you'll inevitably encounter these things. If you don't figure out a way to overcome them, you probably won't have a ton of success. Things like ...
How to Be Funny (If You Aren't)
I know it's going to be a bummer for some people to hear, but in my honest opinion, I don't think you can teach a person to be funny. It's just something you are or something you are not. There are a lot of books and classes out there about comedy, but if any of them claim they can take a person from "not funny" to "funny," they are talking snake-oil nonsense.
That's not to say books and classes aren't useful. I took a stand-up comedy class when I first moved to Los Angeles and it did great things for my confidence. But no one goes into a comedy class as an unfunny person and just magically learns how to identify the quality punchlines hiding in all of those depressing stories about natural disasters and dead people that we read every day. It's just not something everybody can do. To suggest otherwise is like implying that anyone with access to a basketball can play in the NBA, provided playing professional basketball took way less talent and paid fast food money.
Not even name brand fast food.
So that's the bad news. The good news is that being funny is something a lot of people can do. And you could very well be one of those people! The only way to find out is to try it. You can't wait for the right book or class to come along and explain how to be funny. You should already know if you are to some degree. Or at the very least, you should be delusional enough to think you are when you really aren't. Either way, there's only one way to find out for sure, and that's by giving it a shot. If you want to write Internet comedy, my personal suggestion would be to start here like I did. If you want to do stand-up, go to an open mic night and tell some jokes. See what happens from there. It's as easy as that, minus the easy part. That brings us to the next point.
How to Build Up the Nerve to Find Out
Nobody wants to be rejected. It's that fear that keeps countless people from trying any number of different things every day, but it's an especially imposing threat when it comes to comedy, because the rejection is almost always going to be on a wider scale than usual. Getting rejected romantically, for example, is a personal thing that contains the humiliation mostly to you and the person you weirded out by leading with a story about your passion for taxidermy.
Comedic rejection, though, usually happens in front of a group. Granted, if you're at an open mic night, that group might be just a handful of people, but they will feel like the entire world if they all decide they don't like you.
Writing on the Internet isn't much better, because, unlike at a comedy club, patrons of Internet websites are encouraged to tell you what they think of your performance. Depending on where you're writing, that could mean millions of people with the potential to turn into impromptu critics if their dislike for your work is strong enough that it compels them to comment.
Unfortunately, every one of them is this guy.
If the fear of being rejected by a lot of people all at once is keeping you from trying your hand at writing or performing comedy, it's mandatory that you get over it somehow. Some people use alcohol. I can't recommend that, because this is a family show, but if you do go that route, take comfort in knowing that you can just blame the booze if your jokes turn out to be terrible.
And you never know, maybe they won't be. You might find out that you really are as funny as your friends, family, and inflated ego have all led you to believe. In that case, keep this next point in mind.
How to Be Funny (If You Already Are)
So you've decided you're funny! Congratulations! The next step I'd suggest you take is to never let anyone tell you what will or will not make people laugh ever again. There is no such thing as a topic that's off limits, and there is no particular way of delivering a punchline that has fallen so out of favor with people that it's no longer a valid form of comedy. Those who say otherwise are just acknowledging the fact that some people are funny in ways they'll likely never be.
Like how no one will ever be funny in this way.
For example, Cracked gets plenty of flack for putting almost everything we produce into a list-based format. A lot of it, unsurprisingly, comes from aspiring comedy writers who feel that working within the constraints of the "Cracked voice" limits their ability to be funny. Those people are wrong. Not being good at comedy is what's limiting their ability to be funny. Plenty of people have to tailor their work according to the needs of the people who pay them. Welcome to having a job.
If it seems like I'm overly sensitive about this, it's because I am. It doesn't bother me that some people say lists aren't funny, though; it bothers me when people say anything can't be funny anymore. If a trick or technique or topic or premise has been used successfully in the past, someone out there is capable of still using it to entertain people.
Hell, even someone who uses an outdated form of comedy in a terrible way stands a chance of finding an audience. If you don't believe that, please PM me an explanation for how Jeff Dunham isn't changing oil for a living.
It's a mystery to us all.
Clearly, I'm not saying all comedy is good comedy. Unfortunately, bad comedy has its fans, like anything else. What I am saying is that if you think there's a form of comedy out there that's been done too much to be used effectively by anyone anymore, for better or worse, you're wrong.
How to Be Alright With Failing
That said, it's just a given that some ideas are going to be massive failures. I've written a lot of articles for Cracked and even more still for a lot of other sites. I'd be lying if I said I was happy with all of them. To give you some recent examples, I'm not particularly fond of this article about shitty parking lot behaviors, and this thing about insane music videos that pre-date MTV was a pretty lazy effort, even if that Andy Kim video is one of the greatest pieces of unintentional comedy ever. Everything else I've ever done on the Internet is pretty great, though, and that makes those two failures sting a little bit less.
I'm not nearly as well-armed in my fight against the depression that comes with failing at stand-up. It's traditionally referred to as bombing, and it happens to every comic. It's just obviously not the kind of thing that a person whose reputation relies on him being consistently funny likes to advertise. I don't think anyone's expecting consistency from me, though, so I'll totally show you video of me being terrible at telling jokes. It's right here:
Sorry, looks like I embedded video of me being really good at jokes there on accident. That was my most recent set from the comedy show I co-host that you should totally come see sometime. You can tell me I wasn't funny in that video all you want, but I won't believe you. I feel good about that set, and none of you can stop me. I'm open to criticism about this performance, though:
That's me being bad at jokes at an otherwise wonderful show called "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" that you should also go to sometime if you're in town. At least I feel like I had a bad set there. I've done that show twice, and I felt like I did kind of awful both times. I hate that, and I hope I can go back someday and do better, but it happens. Sometimes you just fail to be as funny as you know you can be. It's happened to me a bunch and it will happen a lot more in the future and it never feels great. But it's going to happen, and it's up to you to figure out how to deal with it.
If you're curious, the way I deal with it could best be described as "terribly." Let me know if that helps.
How to Be Funny (When You Don't Feel Like It)
I'm sorry, I should have mentioned somewhere in the intro that I was trying to write the most depressing article about comedy that I possibly could. I guess I didn't actually know that at the time, but it feels like that's how it's shaking out so far. We've only got this last point to go, and it's certainly not going to help.
Anyway, one of the things that I struggle with personally is how to be funny when I don't really feel like being funny. I can't imagine I'm the only person who has to write comedy on a consistent basis who has run into this dilemma. Whether I'm delivering jokes in person, writing an article of my own, or editing something written by someone else, I have something to do damn near every day that requires me to come up with some funny. And you know what? I don't always feel like it.
Take the column I'm writing right now, for example (it's the same one you're reading, coincidentally). Yesterday, we had a fire drill at the Cracked office. It was a lighthearted affair that found the entire team all a-giggle about how silly it was that we had to gather in the street and be told how to exit a building in the event that a clear and present danger were to suddenly arise. Soren was responsible for shepherding us to safety. Here's a picture of him posing heroically in the orange vest that identified him as an authority figure, even if only for a day.
What's weird is that he wears it on non-fire-drill days also.
Pretty fun stuff, right? Right. Also fun, this video of me the very next morning (meaning this morning), after being roused from a dead sleep by the sound of fire alarms blaring in my apartment building.
The remorse you see on my face is the result of mistakenly thinking that this disruption was the result of some drunken jerk pulling a fire alarm. That lapse in judgment led to me standing outside my apartment for a solid hour this morning without my wallet, car keys, or anything else that you'd like to have in that situation while an actual fire burned in an apartment uncomfortably close to my own. How close? This close.
At least it's not a hazmat suit.
That's a firefighter overseeing the vacuuming of the carpet outside my door. The damage was close enough that I now get to spend a night with an industrial carpet drying rig playing a surprise show in my living room.
Play "Please Shut Up So I Can Sleep"!
And it's under those circumstances that I'm writing this column right now. If given a choice, I'd prefer to go sit at a bar and watch March Madness and feel sorry for myself because it's going to be sort of noisy when I try to sleep tonight. I promised people this article would be done, though, so it's getting done.
It's not like I haven't written an article under adverse conditions before. I came up with the idea for this article when I was basically living out of a motel room after a particularly messy end to a relationship. Or there's this article that's actually about living out of a terrible motel room after a particularly messy end to a relationship.
I didn't feel like being funny in either of those situations, but that's one of the "hazards" of the job. Sometimes you have to come up with comedy under less than ideal conditions.